Archives For March 2006

James 2:14-26; John 15:1-8
Olivet Covenant Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, PA
© Andy Campbell, 3/19/06

I am not a good gardener. I don’t have a “green thumb”. I don’t understand the different types of soils, fertilizers, hardiness zones, or sun and shade requirements. But I can tell you what a healthy plant looks like and what an unhealthy plant looks like. Let me illustrate:

Last May, at our church’s annual flower sale, I bought four basil plants. I was already dreaming of fresh pesto and margherita pizza. I took them home, threw them into a couple pots, set them outside on the sidewalk and went back inside. A few days later, as I was coming home, I noticed that the plants looked a little peckish. The robust deep green leaves had started to shrivel and curl, and the color was turning more of a yellow-green.

I went inside and got a watering can. In my mind, a sickly looking plant just needed more water. So, I flooded it. I watched the plants over the next couple of days, anticipating rapid improvement. The leaves filled back out, but their color continued to drain. I checked the soil, and it was still moist. What to do?

I did nothing. I had heard that it is possible to over-water a plant, so I thought maybe I should just let it sit for a few more days. Then I noticed that on one plant, these weird stalk things were beginning to grow from the top of the plant. They had these tiny little leaves that didn’t get any bigger. The stalks grew and grew. The leaves drained of almost all color. That wonderful basil aroma stopped wafting from the plants.

I was pretty frustrated at this point. All I wanted to happen was for the plants to grow. Entire forests flourish without my intervention, so why were these plants being so picky? If those stalks kept growing I would soon be able to climb right up them and join Jack in the Land of the Giants. In my frustration, I grabbed some shears and clipped off those stalks. I started pinching off all the sick looking leaves. When I was finished, the plants looked pretty pathetic. I was sure I’d just signed their death warrant.

Several days later, I went to check on my dying plants, hoping they’d met their demise so I could throw them away and try something else. Much to my surprise, each plant had grown new leaves. These leaves were thick, deep green, and very aromatic. I kept an eye on the plants. By the end of the week, the leaves were big enough to take off the plant for some pesto.

I gussed that there must have been something about removing the stalks and leaves. Far from killing the plant, it rejuvenated it. Moreover, it was easy to decide what to take and what to leave. I just got rid of everything that didn’t look appetizing. I had learned an important principle: healthy growth is dependant on regular pruning.

Jesus said the same thing to his disciples. As we heard in the second reading, God the Father, the Gardener, is a pruner. Let’s go back to my example with the basil. There were two things I did when I pruned that plant. First, I cut off those stalks. They didn’t even look like proper basil. The leaves were way too small to be of any use, they had a different texture, and no aroma. So, I cut them off and threw them away. Then, I looked at the offshoots that had the right kind of leaves on them, albeit sick leaves. I could see that those offshoots were at least growing the right kind of leaf, but of poor quality. So, I removed the leaves, but left the shoots. The result was that those shoots produced better, healthier leaves.

God does the same kind of pruning. We are told to think of Jesus as the central part of the plant, out of which all the offshoots are born. We are those offshoots. When God comes around with his pruning shears, he is examining each one of us to see if we are producing the right kind of leaf, or in the Gospel’s example, fruit. If we’re not, snip. If we are producing the right kind of leaf, or fruit, just not the best quality or quantity we’re capable of, then snip-snip. He takes off a little here and a little there. Getting rid of that which is hindering new growth and limiting our productivity.

I think you get the picture. Pruning is not particularly enjoyable, from the point of view of that which is being pruned. I’m sure the plant doesn’t look forward to getting parts of it cut away or forcibly removed. The same is true of God’s pruning. By it’s very nature it is a bit painful. However, if we can recognize what pruning is, then it becomes tolerable. We see and understand the necessity and can anticipate what is going to happen as a result.

First, you need to know what you are producing. This takes some self-examination and some honesty. Are you producing fruit or useless stalks? Our first reading showed us that the evidence of faith (or in our example, healthy growth) is deeds (fruit) and that faith without deeds is dead.

The great thing about fruit, it that it is visible. It is easy to look and see if there is fruit in your life or if there isn’t. Fruit is evident in the way you treat people. It is evident in how you spend your time. It is evident in how you spend your money. In Galatians 5, Paul has two contrasting lists: one is a list of fruitlessness, the other fruitfulness.

Fruitlessness includes: “repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community.”[1]

Fruitfulness includes: “things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.”[2]

If you find that the first list describes your life more accurately than the second, prepare to be pruned. By the same token, if you find that there are some things in the second list that are sometimes present in your life, prepare to be pruned. The Gardener is not satisfied with either fruitlessness or mediocre fruitfulness. He wants high yielding plants.

So what does pruning look like in the life of an individual? I’m going to borrow author Bruce Wilkinson’s analysis. In his book, Secrets of the Vine he writes that there are two types of things that happens when God gets out his shears. One is discipline and the other is what he calls pruning. He identifies eight questions and their answers that can help one tell the difference between discipline and pruning. They are as follows:[3]

  1. How do you know it is happening? Both are characterized by pain.
  2. Why is it happening? With discipline, it is because you are doing something wrong. However with pruning, you are doing something right.
  3. What is your level of fruitfulness? With discipline you are bearing no fruit. With pruning you are already bearing some fruit.
  4. What is the Gardener’s desire? With discipline, it is that you start bearing fruit. With pruning it is that you bear more fruit.
  5. What needs to go? For discipline, sin. For pruning, self.
  6. How should you feel? When it’s discipline, guilty or sad. When it is pruning, relieved and trusting
  7. What is the right response? For discipline, it is repentance. For pruning, it is release to God.
  8. When will it stop? When it’s discipline, it stops when we stop sinning. When it’s pruning, it stops when God is finished.

When God disciplines us, he removes those unproductive stalks. Those stalks are sin in our lives. It should be easy to recognize when pain in our life is being caused by sin. What is harder to recognize is pain caused by God’s pruning for more productivity. There are four areas where most people are pruned: the people we love, our right to know why God does what he does, our love of money and possessions, and the source of our significance.[4] I want to briefly touch on those four areas.

Shortly after Sydney, my oldest child, was born, I stopped being able to sleep through the night. Now, I know this is common for new parents. You can’t sleep through the night because your child keeps waking you up. However, that was not the sole cause of my sleeplessness. I would wake up with a start if Sydney wasn’t crying. I would jump out of bed, rush across the hall to her room and watch to make sure she was still breathing. I was terrified that she was going to die in her sleep. It consumed my every thought. I felt like it was up to me to keep her alive.

I was in graduate school at the time and my wife April was working full time. My grades began to suffer as did my relationship with my wife. I was tired and cranky. I got mad at God. He’d given us a child and everything else had fallen apart. One night, as I rocked Sydney to sleep, it hit me: I needed to give her up. I needed to surrender what rights I thought I possessed of her and entrust her into God’s keeping. I prayed that God would take her and care for her. That he would protect her and prosper her. I slept better that night than I had since she was born.

God was pruning me. He showed me that I can, and need, to trust Him with everything. That means the people I love. Not just that, but I need to trust Him even if that means that I don’t understand why he does things the way he does. In another example from my life, on December 29, 2005 a friend of mine was killed by a sniper’s bullet in Iraq. Tony has two kids just a few years older than my own, and I used to work with his wife. They used to come to small group at our house in Virginia.

When I confronted God, he used that tragedy as an opportunity to do some more pruning. I demanded that he explain to me why Tony had been killed. He chose to remain silent. I spent more and more time in prayer, trying to understand, wanting to know. He still remained silent. Peace soon began to come over me as I stopped asking “why?” and started asking God to show me what I needed to do to make good come of Tony’s death. God pruned away from me the “right to know” and replaced that with an urge to grow.

A third area where God will prune us is in the area of money or possessions. Nothing causes people more fear than losing money. Most people live on a pretty tight budget as it is. For them, the worst case scenario is that they lose their job and are unable to pay their bills. As a result, many people become slaves to money. I worry about money, but a lot less than I used to. Again, it is the result of pruning. When God called me to ministry, I knew that meant giving up any aspirations of becoming a gazillionaire.

But then God called me to a job without a salary. He called me to a position where I would have to raise my financial support by asking other people to financially back my ministry. I was petrified. Does that sound like security to you? What if your employer told you that instead of paying you an hourly wage or guaranteeing you a salary, you had to go out among your family and friends, tell them what it is you are going to be doing for work, and ask them to give you money to allow you to do that work?

It was a tough decision, but I took the job. God has shown me his faithfulness. I have story after story of money coming in just as if I had a full salaried job. It has become easier to trust that when God promises something, he delivers.

Lastly, God will prune us in the area where we derive our significance. I’ll give you an example from my Dad’s life. He was an up-and-coming executive in the software industry. He got offered a job which would require a move from Georgia to Texas. Without consulting his family, much less God, he accepted the position and we all moved to Texas. Two years later the company downsized and he found himself unemployed. He quickly found another job, only to have the same thing happen one year later. Listen to his words as he reflects on what God did through those circumstances:

Much of my self esteem and self worth had been derived from the success I had achieved in the business world. The fulfillment and thrill of “climbing the corporate ladder”, achieving the financial rewards of that success, and being an executive of a corporation defined success and meaning in my life. Although I was a Christian, I allowed the world to define much of who I was and the meaning of life.

As I drove down the street to my home in Richardson, Texas to tell my wife that I was unemployed again, I realized for the first time that the only constant that I had was my family and God. The journey of a job search that I embarked upon taught me that my self worth as a person could only be derived from my relationship with God – it could not be derived from my job or even from my family. I learned that I had to rely upon God each day for the assurance and hope that one day I would be employed again and that I would be able to provide for my family. I had to give up trying to control my life.

If we find that our identity is wrapped up in what we do, who we are related to, or what we have, we can be sure that God will prune us in those areas until we realize that our true identity is only found in Him.

When it comes to gardening, a plant is doing one of two things: it’s either growing or it’s dying. An attentive gardener wants to prosper the growth of his plants, reap the benefits of their fruit, and propagate more plants. Many times, this involves taking an active role in the growth of the plant, through removing anything that hinders growth.

As Christians, we can expect to be pruned. Sometimes it is to get rid of sin so that we can start bearing fruit. Other times it is to tweak our behaviors and attitudes so that we can bear even more fruit. Initially, both feel the same. They are painful. It is only when we take the time to ask the Gardener for His insight, that we discover why He has taken his shears to us.

Unlike a plant, we can take an active roll in the process. We can remove the sin from our life that God is trying to get rid of. We can allow God to modify our behaviors and attitudes, understanding that our cooperation will bring even more fruitfulness to our lives. We can look at the amount and type of fruit we’re bearing and we can modify our spiritual intake to maximize increased fruitfulness.

It starts with abiding in the Vine, that is Christ. We can’t bear fruit, or do anything else for that matter, without abiding in Him. Abiding in Christ is spending time with Christ. That means prayer. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again now, prayer is the prime means of being connected to Christ and having Him remain in you. If you are not spending time in prayer each day, I implore you to start. Don’t feel like you have to carve out an hour each day right from the start. Begin realistically, maybe 10 or 15 minutes at the same time every day.

If you already have a solid prayer life, then you are well on your way to being a fruitful plant. When pain comes into your life, you take that pain to God in prayer and ask Him to show you what kind of pruning is going on. Keeping some sort of spiritual journal or diary will help you see how God tends to work in your life, what areas He has pruned in the past, and what areas you may need to work on in the future.

A plant is pruned it’s entire life. The Gardener is always seeking more and better production. Why? For His glory. The fruit becomes secondary. It is evidence of the skill and compassion of the Gardener. Recognize pruning. Remain in the Vine. Be fruitful.

[1] Galatians 5:19b-21a, from Eugene Peterson’s The Message translation

[2] Gal. 5:23a, The Message

[3] See page 66 of Bruce Wilkinson’s Secrets of the Vine, © 2001, Multnomah Press.

[4] ibid., p. 79ff.